The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We’re hurting’: In New Hampshire’s poorest city, few signs of Trump’s ‘blue-collar boom’

A pedestrian walks along Main Street in Berlin, N.H. The community has lost jobs, the population is dwindling and many businesses have closed. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

BERLIN, N.H. — If you are looking for evidence of President Trump's "great American comeback," this working-class city in the heart of New Hampshire's rugged and remote North Country seems to have much to offer.

The unemployment rate, which was touching double digits 10 years ago as Berlin weathered the collapse of its signature mill, is down to 3 percent. The local paper is stuffed with help-wanted ads. Property values are climbing as newcomers move in.

But Berlin — which thrived through most of the 20th century before the bottom fell out in the early 2000s — hardly feels like a city on the mend.

More than a decade into the longest economic expansion America has ever known, residents say just about the only jobs available pay minimum wage with no benefits as out-of-pocket health-care costs surge. The last elementary school shuttered last year, capping a long-term exodus of young families. The once-bustling downtown is so scarred by closures, demolitions and fires that it looks, according to the city’s mayor, “like a bomb was dropped in the middle of it.”

“We’re hurting, there’s no question,” said Paul Labrecque, one of the many here who lost his middle-class wage and benefits when the paper mill went bust. “We’ve got no businesses, nothing to attract people. There aren’t the kind of jobs here that can sustain a family.”

A chaotic Iowa caucus has left the Democratic Party scrambling for clarity in New Hampshire. (Video: The Washington Post)

As Democratic candidates scramble for support across New Hampshire before Tuesday’s primary, all claim they can improve people’s lives in places like Berlin. Voters will have to consider whether any of them actually can, even as Trump makes the nation’s economic recovery central to his case for reelection.

“I am thrilled to report to you tonight that our economy is the best it has ever been,” Trump boasted in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, citing the lowest unemployment rate in a half-century, rising wages and a soaring stock market.

Those robust national indicators are reflected across much of this state, where poverty has fallen to the lowest rate in America.

In Coös County — the sprawling territory that extends from the White Mountains to the Canadian border and that claims Berlin, population 10,000, as its only city — the poverty rate actually increased between 2017 and 2018, census figures show. Even as poverty fell nationally, about a third of counties nationwide saw an uptick from 2016 to 2018, the latest years for which statistics are available.

Many of those counties are thinly populated, exacerbating the already stark divide between urban areas, where growth has generally been vigorous, and rural America, which still has not recovered from the global economic downturn a dozen years ago.

In such places, the national rebound that began under Barack Obama and has continued under Trump can feel more ominous than hopeful. It is obvious who is being left behind and unclear whether the gains experienced elsewhere will ever arrive.

If Berlin is an example of a “blue-collar boom,” as Trump called it this week, residents shudder to imagine a bust.

“People are yelling and screaming that we’ve got this great economy,” said Paul Grenier, Berlin’s Democratic mayor. “But we’re not really feeling that here. Our area is the first to fall into a recession. And it’s the last to climb out.”

Berlin is “the city that trees built,” says the welcome sign along Route 16 as it ascends into town. For more than a century, the mill that transformed nearby mountainsides worth of pine and oak into paper and tissue sustained generations of middle-class American life.

Wedged between fast-flowing rivers — the Androscoggin and the Dead — Berlin was once New Hampshire’s third-largest city, and it was the first to get electricity. The stately brick buildings of Main Street and the hilly residential blocks filled with fine old Colonials attest to a prosperous past.

When Eddy Deblois graduated from Berlin High School, in 1973, the downtown was packed with cars every night, the hockey team was among the best in the state and the jobs at the Brown Company mill were plentiful. All you had to do was sign up.

“It was a big operation — the economic engine of the whole northern half of the state,” said Deblois, whose father worked at the mill for four decades. “We had our own railroad, our own research center — 4,000 workers at its peak.”

The mill today is a barely functioning relic; the smokestack still churns out thick white plumes, but inside, employees number in the dozens.

Deblois, a barrel-chested 64-year-old, had his own four-decade career at the mill, including a stint as union president. These days, he spends much of his time counseling former workers how not to get gouged on marketplace health-care plans they can barely pay for and thought they would never need.

“I don’t go to the doctor myself for most things,” Deblois said. “I can’t afford it.”

The mill’s nearly complete shutdown left a void in Berlin that has yet to be filled. The closest the city has come is a pair of prisons — one state, one federal. They offer a fraction of the jobs once provided by the mill. But they are better than nearly all the alternatives.

“A prison is probably not your first choice of a place to work, or even your second or third. But we’re very happy to have them,” said Deblois. “Without those jobs, what would this area look like?”

Even with them, prospects in Berlin — which, unlike the German capital, is pronounced BUR-lin — can look bleak.

Entire generations of young people have left the city as the mill sputtered. The graduating class of Berlin High School, which was nearly 400 strong in 1973, was down to 98 last year. Drug and alcohol abuse, residents say, have taken a toll on those who have stayed. The theater, restaurants and shops that once lined Main Street are nearly all gone, with vacant storefronts and empty plots outnumbering viable businesses.

Although newcomers are arriving, many come only because they have been priced out of other areas and are attracted by the city’s low housing prices. Once here, they find little opportunity.

“It’s a struggle all the time. Between the apartment, electricity, doctor’s bills and prescriptions, there’s nothing left,” said Diane Begin, a 61-year-old who moved to Berlin with her husband and two grown children — all of whom receive government assistance. “The end of the month is horrible. Thank God for food pantries.”

Longtime residents, meanwhile, have had to watch their children go.

“My son left for Arizona,” said Amy Ames, a 55-year-old waitress at the Valley Creek Eatery, where photos and memorabilia from the city’s glory days line the walls and a giant “For Sale” sign spans the roof. “He was struggling here. There’s more opportunity out there.”

For those looking to work, the jobs do exist. But few offer the pay or protection once promised by a unionized mill.

Labrecque endured two shutdowns at the mill before he was permanently laid off from his $22-an-hour job. He had worked 41 years and 11 months — but was still too young to retire.

After a stretch of unemployment, he found work cutting grass and tending a cemetery.

“Things are going to get worse before they get better,” he predicted as he tucked into a well-buttered English muffin at the Eastern Depot, a diner on the edge of town where the state’s flinty motto — “Live Free or Die” — is chalked above the counter.

But Labrecque said he has little interest in gambling with whether another president could offer more for his city. “I’m a Democrat, but what Trump has done is amazing,” he said, citing the economic growth enjoyed in other parts of the country. “I don’t like the man. I don’t like his attitude. But he’s doing good.”

It is a common sentiment in Berlin, a longtime Democratic stronghold where the Republican was customarily trounced in the presidential vote. In 2016, Trump came within a couple hundred votes of winning here.

All of the Democratic candidates, to one degree or another, have promised they can offer more to forgotten places like Berlin via changes to the tax code, greater support for unions and reductions in prescription drug costs. But even among Trump critics here, there is uncertainty over whether the Democrats can make good on those pledges.

Proposals to provide Medicare-for-all or free college tuition “all sound great,” said Grenier. “But who the hell is going to pay for it?”

Grenier said he would support former vice president Joe Biden on Tuesday, but less for economic reasons than because “morality still means a lot to me, and I trust Joe.”

Solving Berlin’s problems, he acknowledged, may be too big an ask of any president. Grenier remade himself after losing his mill job at age 40, becoming a car salesman and entering politics. The city — which he called “the most resilient in the state of New Hampshire” — will have to transform, as well.

“There’s no white knight coming up Route 16,” Grenier said. “The white knight has got to be ourselves.”